Apocalyptic Storytelling

Looking at the themes of games and stories on offer, there are a few that consistently crop up every so often. Among those, one that routinely crops up in video games is the idea of a post-apocalyptic world and the struggle to survive in it. Among tabletop games, it’s a less common theme, and it isn’t hard to understand why.

On average, tabletop games are about taking someone who starts from a humble beginning and building them up to something greater. A few – like Call of Cthulhu – break this mold, but overall there’s a theme of heroism and ascension to the kinds of stories told. Apocalyptic settings generally don’t mesh well with this kind of progression; survival and resource management are a default part of this kind of game, and it can both get tedious to track exactly how much ammunition, food, water, medicine, and storage space/weight you have available, and the heroic themes of most games will conflict with the scavenger vibe of post-apocalyptic games.

That’s not to say it’s a lost cause, certainly! As long as the group is on board with tracking resources, plenty of games have ways to play the kind of under-powered and under-geared character that best fits into such a survival setting. Even Pathfinder, where you can have literal mythic heroes capable of going toe-to-toe with demigods, can potentially settle into this kind of game; characters won’t have very impressive stats, they’ll generally have NPC class levels, and the kind of magical gear you need at higher levels will be hard to find and make the owner a magnet to everyone else who knows about it.

So – in light of this, aside from people who think Libertarian Doomsday Prepper Zombie Nightmare* sounds like a wild time, why would anyone want to play an apocalypse game? Tracking supplies, worrying about things like diseases, trying to build a safe place to store your scavenged stuff, and all that sound like a lot of work, right?

So does building a kingdom, and Kingmaker is one of the most universally positive Pathfinder Adventure Paths. Apocalyptic games can hit all those rarely-scratched itches – being the underdog, building a place of your own and making it really yours instead of just being handed it, getting to be clever and win by wit, cunning, and luck rather than simply by outgunning your foe with fireballs and rocket launchers, and so on – and also give you a nice change of pace from the usual routine of your game.

A gang of goblins that are hardly a threat to anything but the greenest of players remain a serious danger for a lot longer in this kind of game, and it provides a reason to use rules and subsystems that normally never see the light of day. Rules about weather, exposure, improvised gear, and crafting all come to the forefront here. Players who normally can ignore concerns about diseases through easily available medical treatment or magical healing will find themselves scrambling to treat even minor injuries to the best of their ability, while the benefits of things like drugs will get weighed against the dangers of both their direct harm and the specter of addiction in a world where you can’t find more of them easily.

Next week, I’ll be exploring post-apocalyptic gaming in greater depth; I hope you’ll join me for it!

* Honestly, it looks like a somewhat interesting and entertaining game, even if the rhetoric in it is a bit over the top. It’s certainly better than CthulhuTech or F.A.T.A.L.

Apocalyptic Storytelling

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